By Franklyn Kimball • September 20, 2010•Writers in Residence
This second column on practicing and parenting compiles some practical advice on the process interspersed with some anecdotes which are intentionally informal and irreverent. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which parables fall into which categories.
At Some Point Kids Are Old Enough to Walk to the corner market. We live in the DePaul area of Lincoln Park about 2 miles north of downtown Chicago. It’s an urban brownstone-filled neighborhood with a fair amount of traffic. The over protective dad in me resisted letting our daughter walk the 2 blocks to the local grocery store until she was 7 or 8 not because I thought she’d get lost but because drivers in Chicago view stop signs and cross walks as concepts and guidelines, not rules (especially the ones in large SUV’s busily texting their way to vehicular homicide). But at some point, as Viper said to Maverick in Top Gun after the death of the legendary Goose “you’ve got to let ‘em go.” Fast forward two years to age 10 and our babysitter Harriet was going home to Krakow to visit friends and family for three weeks and invited Shannon to come along. The Lincoln Park Market was 2 blocks away - Krakow is 4,105 miles. You can imagine my reaction to that idea. Well one night Shannon leaves a note on our bureau - 4 pages long, single spaced, bullet points, several footnotes titled “24 reasons why Shannon is old enough to go to Poland.” She went to Poland.
You Will Suffer from Advanced Clown Differentiation Syndrome™. Many ambitious parents suffer from intermittent bouts of A.C.D.S. The condition effects ambitious lawyers accustomed to doing big deals, handling the big cases, and fighting the fights that are covered in the Wall Street Journal. Then a small child arrives and all bets are off. Fast forward two years and on a random Saturday morning you’re sitting in a Chuck E. Cheese - for the 13th birthday party in the past 6 months. You’re so tired that your eyelids hurt and you’re somewhere between dozing off and hallucinating. Suddenly, you realize that you’ve seen the clown hired for this party before - maybe last week, maybe at the party you put together last month. Two years ago you were handling the mega deals - now you’re comparing clowns. Then again there’s a fair amount of clown differentiation in your day to day practice except some of them don’t wear oversize shoes or have a honker on their belt.
All Households must Have One Dog per Child. Our golden retrievers, the late great Honey and Sandy, were part of the kids’ lives from 1993 through last summer. There’s nothing wrong with a huge dog sleeping in bed with a 5-15 year old. You will buy a new vacuum cleaner every year or two. Keep the dogs out of the whirlpool tub - all the dirt on your retriever is expelled into the water within 10 seconds. Keep all food out of reach - especially steak, salmon, salads, tomatoes, doughnuts, corn on the cob, and ice cream. The sight of an 80 pound running away with a five pound brisket or face buried in a half gallon of chocolate ice cream will stay with you and the living room carpet forever. A full grown young golden has longer reach than LeBron James - and a bigger appetite. Nothing is safe. Kids and dogs are one of the great combo platters of life. They’re friends, companions, guardians, soul mates, and a constant source of entertainment for the entire family. Don’t believe me? Come by next summer and meet our new retriever Dakota. Dogs are loud, raucous, messy, and destructive. And they maul visitors. That’s why they’re called dogs. But kids love them — and you should too. And if they’re large enough you can cancel the alarm contract. I don’t think a dog is a dog until it weighs 60 pounds but a small dog with a big dog personality counts. Buy all of the Beethoven movies about kids and St.Bernards. Did you know that Disney has more than a dozen films featuring golden retrievers or labradors?
Create Family traditions - the destination isn’t important but the tradition is. For us it was 13 years and counting riding horses in the Bighorn Mountains of Eastern Wyoming at Paradise Ranch. None of us had ever ridden before 1995 and some (Matt, Linda, and Shannon) learned faster than others (Frank). But it became our place to go and a tremendous annual tradition. The kids loved the outdoors, the mountains, the riding, and freedom to roam the ranch and the mesa on horseback without those annoying parents following them everywhere. If you get there before me say hello to Don Diego, Cody, and Jasper - my trusty steeds. Credit goes to Linda on this idea - both the notion of tradition and the destination itself.The tradition need not be elaborate or expensive. For many years Shannon ran a lemonade stand during the neighborhood garden walk. She made hers from scratch and sold home made chocolate chip cookies as well. She learned marketing 101 - papering the neighborhood with signs advertising her stand as “Home of the Garden Walk Special.” She learned how to work the crowd for tips and have fun. One tradition we blew was Sunday night pizza - we’d spend the afternoon making sauce, dough, sausage - and then the kids would roll out their own pizzas. Dinner could not be served until the Simpsons was over. Now as someone who views cooking as the highest form of recreation I thought we’d created a great tradition. Imagine my surprise when last year Shannon said “Dad, I really didn’t like that pizza- I like the ones we order from Bacino’s or Pizza Capri.” O.K. Maybe I get 5 points for effort.
As the kids learned more and more about cooking they started to take over various holiday meals - Shannon on the chocolate chip pancakes, Matt on Christmas eve dinner or Christmas dessert. One of our favorites was making the gingerbread house before Christmas- a 3 day project complete with colored sugar windows and the roof and walkway decorated with candy the kids picked out. Photos available on request. Yes it looked great but the point was the kids had fun helping out and as the years passed did more and more of the work.
Great traditions can be found in simplest tasks that kids will remember forever. It could be bathing your dogs, going to the car wash (a non stop laugh riot for a 2 year old), dawn trips to breakfast at a favorite spot, getting the Christmas tree, loading up kids and dogs in a wagon and trekking to the farmer’s market, the annual argument about the best kind of lights for the Christmas tree - white, colored, blinking or not or - my personal favorite - coaching your kids in youth sports. Shannon and I always enjoyed breakfast at the now closed Demon Dogs stand underneath the Fullerton L stop. She said her Mom didn’t like it because it was “very dusty.” Correct. A high fiber breakfast begins with a little dust on the doughnut shop floor.
Turn sleep overs into dog-overs. The kids’ friends were always welcome to bring along their dogs to sleep overs. First, it makes for a non stop laugh riot. More important, no child will ever get home sick at 2 a.m. when they have their dog with them. Why didn’t anybody ever invite Honey and Sandy back over? Perhaps because they weighed 80 pounds and were “lively.” We’ve had as many as five dogs in residence on a sleep over night. The only problem: protecting the doughnuts on Sunday morning.
You can watch Borat with your teenager. I love action movies and tasteless comedies. It’s in my DNA. I’ll watch Stripes for the 50th time just because it’s Stripes. I’ll watch Heartbreak Ridge just because it’s Eastwood’s least appreciated film. But there will come a time when your kids go to movies before you do. When Shannon told me that she and her boyfriend loved Borat - I thought that could be way over the top for a DVD at home. So one night she picked up the DVD and had us sit and watch it together. Can I tell you from a psychological standpoint why this was important? Of course not. But I can tell you it was a watershed moment and the first time I learned that her wit and humor were way beyond her father’s. Now the hotel wrestling scene....
Find restaurants that know you and love your kids. For the next decade or two forget trying to plan in advance for a weekend. It’s not going to happen. When kids are young you have be more flexible than a gymnast. When they’re teens and consent to dine with you, their plans will be final at the very last minute. So if you’re heading out to lunch or dinner with the family, you need a few places that like your kids and will squeeze you in. Long before Rick Bayless became Top Chef Master we would go to Frontera for lunch or dinner most Saturdays. It was a special but pretty simple place in the 1980's.
In 1990, when Shannon was an infant, she could become a bit impatient at Frontera while we tried to enjoy the mole of the moment. On several occasions Deeann Bayless came by our table, picked up Shannon and carried her around the kitchen and dining room so Linda and I were able to eat our dinner. Before Shannon became a fan of Mexican food she would only have scrambled eggs and tortillas every time she dined at Frontera. They didn’t mind and now she samples the whole menu. But their patience was tested in 1990 when Shannon took a dinner plate and without warning flung it like a frisbee across the restaurant at lunchtime shattering it in a hundred pieces on the floor. They didn’t complain. I thought we had found the next QB for the Bears. Twenty three years after it opened we’ve been there countless times -and while the cuisine is spectacular what makes it special has its roots in those tales from the early years.
Coach youth sports - it does not matter if you weren’t a traffic stopping athlete in high school or college. It’s a tremendous amount of fun and at the youth level you needn’t be Vince Lombardi in order to be an effective coach. You can’t possibly think about what is worrying you in the rest of your life when you’re calling plays in the huddle on a fall afternoon. I coached football (which I love but was not a great talent) and basketball (which I love but don’t really understand). I had 18 teams over 11 years and we always finished 1st 2d or 3d in our league - yep we had talent and great kids. But we really had was fun. To this day I’ll run into people in Chicago who call out “Coach Kimball” - of course their kids have grown 2 feet and 110 pounds in the 10 years since I coached them. Make it fun - for my football teams a shutout earned a pizza party. Win by 21 points another pizza party. Have team mottoes - my favorite — “Someone’s Got to Take Out the Trash.” Throw a pass to the center. Try a drop kick, a quick kick punt, a reverse on the kick-off, or a 42 yard field goal to win a game. Have faith in your kids and they’ll reward you ten times over.
In 2004 my 5th-6th grade team was rolling. We had a kid with an arm, three kids who could catch and a center who could block a Mack Truck. The big game arrived - a team coached by former Chicago Bears MVP and Safety Gary Fencik (along with his fast and very talented then 5th grade son.) Amazingly by the end of the third quarter we are up 14-10 and the kids are going nuts. We’d had two pizza parties already and they screamed out “what do we get if we win this game?” I blurted out “limos and a trip to the Gary casinos.” Fencik’s team scored and won 17-14. I ran into Gary a year later. Gary said “I thought we would get you in the playoffs so I had someone film the rest of your games and we looked for your tendencies ---- and you have no tendencies except the kids seem to be laughing and having fun.” I laughed and said “Gary you’ve got to be kidding me. Gary Fencik is filming our team to analyze my tendencies. That’s why you played in the Super Bowl and I watch it on TV.” Fencik had me figured out. The loss didn’t hurt that much but I still think about a bad play I called on our final drive. My mistake. Not the kids. The year after Shannon’s 6th grade season (we placed 2d) she headed off to a college basketball camp. When she came home she said “Dad, you don’t know anything about basketball.” She’s right. I don’t But we did finish 1st, 2d, and 2d the three years I coached..
Coaching youth sports is not the exclusive province of the male of the species. I had many gifted co-coaches but there was none better than Kelley Lynch and the winter we spent coaching 5th-6th grade girls’ basketball. For the record her daughter Kelsey was one of the five best kids I ever coached in youth football. As a fourth grader she could throw a football, with accuracy, more than 40 yards. If she’d gone to Michigan she’d be giving Denard “Shoelace” Robinson a run for starting QB for the Wolverines.
Patience v. Impatience. Impatience is one of the strongest and occasionally befuddling traits of children and teens. They’d like tomorrow to occur yesterday. Combined with their audacity and feelings of immortality it can spur them to take tremendous risks which offer tremendous rewards or tremendous risks that are just that, tremendous risks. Their parents and grand parents, by contrast, even though their days are far more limited tend to be more patient about life. They know that recoveries follow recession, that peace can follow war, that health can often follow illness, that broken hearts are mended, that the journey can be as enjoyable as the destination. So when a child is in a hurry to do something, go somewhere, take a chance - look back and think about taking the ride with them. You can be their invisible co-pilot offering direction and help but not taking the lead. You were that way in your youth. Trust me. I know.
Kids understand far more than you realize. Kids watch your every move and listen to your every word and can repeat your thoughts verbatim five years later - to your amusement, embarrassment, and with remarkable skill as if they were reviewing transcripts to prepare a deft cross examination. When Shannon was about 4 she answered the phone one Sunday afternoon in the Fall and told the caller that “Daddy is watching the god-damned Bears.” A little shocked I asked her why she said this. She replied “Well Daddy every Sunday you come home after church, lay down on the couch, and then 30 minutes later you yell “the god damn Bears!” and leave the room. With Jake Cutler on the field no profanity is necessary this year. I smell a Super Bowl. Notice I didn’t say when. I just said I smell one.
Kids share something with golden retrievers. They have excellent intuitive judgment about people. When Shannon was about 10, a lawyer visited my office to talk about his career. He was unpleasant, stubborn, strange, and generally unimpressive and insincere. On his way out he passed by Shannon who was playing with some of her dolls and patted her on the head as if she were a poodle. After he left Shannon came up to me and whispered “Daddy.....that one’s not going to work out.” I asked her why. She explained “well he pretends he likes children but I think he’s an *(&^%^&*.” Youthful intuition is remarkable.
The final column in this series will compile fifteen additional parables - some practical, others philosophical, and a few almost impossible to classify. As always, your reactions and suggestions and own tales from the front are welcome.